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Leslie Orrantia addresses community engagement on WISCAPE podcast

by Brett Ranon Nachman | Jun 18, 2018

WISCAPE_NowInHigherEdlogo - 1400pxThe latest episode of WISCAPE's "Now in Higher Ed" podcast ​brings on Leslie Orrantia, director of community relations ​at ​UW-Madison, to discuss the rewards and intricacies of her experiences as she nears her second anniversary serving in the role.

Here are some highlights from the conversation.

  • Orrantia describes her work as entailing three, multifaceted buckets. The first bucket involves county and city relations, which ​focuses on streamlining communication and ensuring that various entities are in dialogue with one another; serving on committees and boards is key to this component. Second, the community ​piece works toward enhancing access to postsecondary education for children in the K-12 system, particularly those from underserved populations, as well as engaging with members of the arts and business sectors, for example. Third, she oversees the UW South Madison Partnership, which bridges the space between campus and community.
  • Orrantia's administrative, communication, and casework background provided her with many foundational experiences. Orrantia works in an office of one, formally, which has required execution capacity, project management skills, and vision. “In a lot of nonprofits, we see a lot of different hats, and having had that experience has definitely given me greater confidence, in terms of my understanding of Dane County and how to effectively listen to people, to help inform how I frame my work and my priorities, and how to facilitate connections with campus,” Orrantia said. “But it also means I’ve developed a wide-ranging skillset that’s both nimble, but also iterative, and will continue to be developed in response to those identified needs.”
  • Enhancing access and engagement have encompassed two of Orrantia’s priorities. There are two sides of the coin related to the notion of access. Whereas logistical access to educational resources may exist in the form of reasonable transportation and parking options, for instance, perceived access involves reducing perceived barriers for underserved populations​ -- such as students of color and first-generation students​ -- so that ​these individuals see college as a realistic possibility and ​have increased clarity on how to navigat​e tasks ​such as paying for ​a college education. One task on Orrantia’s plate is dismantling notions about the sticker price of a college education, and through partnerships involving various entities, including financial aid and the Madison Metropolitan School District, she is making headway dispelling myths about college costs. “I want to be very explicit and very intentional about understanding and listening first,” Orrantia said, which led to her participating in more than 800 meetings in her first year ​to determine ways of forming a thoughtful agenda in engaging with various stakeholders. This approach also helped inform shaping a framework for the three aforementioned, proverbial buckets.
  • Building trust emerges from listening to others’ concerns. “I very much start from a place of transparency of ‘I am absolutely always willing to share my time,’” even though it might take a while to schedule a meeting. However, Orrantia’s focused and respectful dynamic with whomever she meets builds connection. “The listening, once it does take place, it’s really a matter of recognizing and, of course, understanding how and where within our institution we might be able to respond,” she added. “If and where we can sustain partnerships that are meaningful, people change the world, and people can only do that through partnerships.” Tension can be reduced through shaping trust and, consequently, keeping all parties in the loop as to what community challenges may emerge.
  • Championing the Community-University Partnership Awards leads to recognizing productive connections. The annual awards ceremony aims to recognize “capacity-building, community collaborative entities across disciplines, across campuses, across the state,” Orrantia said. This past year involved bestowing seven awards, three of them in Dane County, and included honoring an effort to boost pathways to citizenship, for example. “The Community-University Partnership Awards really seek to capture the Wisconsin Idea at work in our community at large,” she said. “Of course, the Wisconsin Idea is part of who we are as an institution, and I would also say it has a spectrum of definition, and we’ve really ebbed and flowed in terms of our definition over time.”
  • Orrantia appreciates the positive institutional influence UW-Madison can have in the community and the world at large. From its service learning courses to community outreach efforts, UW-Madison and its employees, among them faculty, staff, and students, play a key role in acting responsively to meet current needs, Orrantia said. In developing campus engagement strategies, she expressed that she always thinks about how she and her colleagues can “leverage the institution in really substantive ways” that will benefit numerous stakeholders. “I think with all of our collective capacities to make change, positive change that’s really inclusive for next generations, I’m just constantly overwhelmed in a good way,” she said, laughing. “The exposure I’ve had on campus and off to our capacity to make impact is absolutely breathtaking, and I never expected to be able to see so much of that in this role.”
  • Finally, Orrantia ​said that she is always cognizant of making clear her expectations and capabilities as to what she can address in her role. “In campus and community we’re incredibly lean, and how and where we can leverage collaborations to build that greater capacity, a lot of that requires greater transparency.”

Listen to the full episode on PodBean, or by ​searching for "WISCAPE Now in Higher Ed" on iTunes.

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